Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hut 37. Part One.

The world became that which they so revered, so much sought after. Mile after mile of gliding, telemarking, impossibly balancing on the knife edge of a broken leg, and always at speed. Speed was the Wombakinnon's heart, their tofu steak and potatoes, especially speed at great risk. None could fly the same path, everyone failed, even their oldest friends; only Wombakinnons could walk this way, and they were exceedingly proud of this fact. Max and Aldous were middle brothers, and so stuck together naturally; but they had a younger sister, Hathan, who could ski them into the snow, so they often accidentally forgot to tell her they were going.

Shush, shush. Sweep, peg, twist, turn, shush. The climb was steady. Thirty miles and three days in already, so they were getting faster and faster, and all of it over ten thousand feet. Max could feel his quadriceps booming, the skis knifing through powder, could hear Aldous behind him, the familiar focused breathing, machine-grace rhythm. For the last hour they'd been crossing a range of small peaks, angling for height; soon they'd find the pass, and the hut, and then would begin the Great Wombakinnon Brother's Party, indescribably lascivious and marked by wild stumbling behavior, leaping off snow cliffs naked in the dark, all while spouting history as if they had been there, eyes glowing, a mad moment of Gleam, you'd-just-have-to-be-there. An old friend of Max, Horsepuckey, had started to find reasons not to be able to make it -- he was crazy enough, but mild by Wombakinnon standards, and he often found himself injured and vomiting the next day -- not the sort of thing an insurance agent really enjoys.

The Brothers Alone skied this trail. Higher and higher, and Aldous began to notice something odd: something was wrong with the air. He sniffed at the darkening sky. "Yeah, we better frickin' move," said Max, eyes on the horizon behind Aldous. "Something vastly bad over there."

"What's the air?", said Aldous. "Can you -- it feels wrong."

"Yeah, I feel it, maybe it's just storm pressure --?" Max trailed off.

Aldous struggled with his words. "Almost like the air is scared -- is that weird?"

Max looked at the horizon again. "No," he said, "and we'd better get moving now, right now, go."

Aldous turned to follow his gaze, saw the vast gray Boiling Cloud World bearing directly down on them, and sprang into his skis with true vigor. The two brothers skied like they had demons on their heels, abandoning all pretense at meditative focus or balance -- now, they skied as if they were Mad, not cowardly creatures of the cautious earth. The Vast Gray Boil followed, as if it truly meant to take them down and boil them. Whenever Max would glance behind him, his heart would pound heavily into his throat, he saw its speed, they weren't going to make it, no way. There was at least a mile to go; and the Boil was too fast.

"If we don't make the hut in five minutes we're not going to be able to see!" Aldous's shout was nearly lost in the growing thunder of peak winds.

Still, they skied. Faster than they had ever skied, they pushed like animals straining at a wire cage, faces frozen in the rictus of the Mad, they weren't going to make it --

Later, Max would remember the last hundred yards as a dream; a small man fighting his way out of hell, blind, tormented, held down by vast weights, clawed at by vicious little strong monsters all the way to -- to Heaven.

Heaven was Hut 37. They tumbled into it as dead men, alive only long enough to kick feebly at the door, closing it just some ten feet ahead of the Gray Boiling Monster that slammed against the heavy timbers of the door like a Kansas hurricane, shaking and threatening to rip the thick concrete walls of the shelter into the air and hurl them into deep space. Both Aldous and Max lay on the thrumming concrete floor, waiting for the End, the End of the Wombakinnon Saga, which had been told in many times and places, even other planets. Now to be concluded --

Aldous groaned. "I'm not going out in that again until I'm really drunk."

Max replied, through heavy breathing. "Okay."

After awhile, they worked themselves into sitting positions, brushing hamhandedly at the strange gray snow that had threatened to smother them the last fifteen feet. Aldous pulled open his pack, and they set to work preparing the Party, just as if the walls were not pounding with the force of something unearthly. The hut was good, it held; they were alive, and could not leave; time to loosen up.

This was at least what they tried to do, in common Wombakinnon style; but not very successfully. The door to the hut constantly smashed against the latch with a violence that made it hard to be lighthearted, playing the music of Angry Nature, to which men rarely dance, not even Wombakinnons.

But they tried. Sitting as far away from the door as possible. they cranked up a candle lantern and sat on their sleeping bags eating beans and bagels. Andy uncorked the bota bag of brandy, really good stuff he'd kiped from his mom's house, and now it tasted like the Fruit of the Tree Itself, the Wombakinnon tree, from which their great strength and Total Luck flowed. Within an hour, they were making a joke of the whole thing. Tomorrow would be clear, the snow would be even better, what a close call that had been.

Max woke up with a throbbing head in the darkness, needing to pee. He stumbled up and put on his boots -- the constant shaking of the door had stopped, and the pounding on the walls had decreased -- it sounded like the trouble was much farther away than before. Maybe it was clear enough outside -- he grabbed his LED flashlight and put on his coat, and flashed over at Aldous, snoring away. All was well.

Max walked over and worked at the latch. It took a good shove on the door to relieve the pressure -- suddenly the bar flew back, and the door opened explosively -- Max leaped back, but nothing happened. There was something in the doorway --

He brought up his flashlight to reveal a solid wall of gray ice, with a perfect pattern of the door chiseled into it, or molded.

"Aldous," Max said softly. "Aldous."

Aldous sat straight up. "Znnnaaaa - What? Ow." His hands went to his temples -- after a few moments of rubbing, he fell back into his sleeping bag.

"Aldous," Max said, a little more intensely. "Look."

Aldous sat straight up again, and opened his eyes wide. "What? What the hell. What time is it? Is the storm over?" His eyes traveled to Max's flashlight, and it took him a moment to resolve the sight; then he was fully awake.

"Shit." he said. "We're buried."

"I think the storm is still going on above us. Wayyy above us. I can hear it. Up there." He pointed a the ceiling.

Aldous listened for a moment.

"Jesus, that's like, what -- fifty feet up?"

"At least." Max's hands trembled a little, causing the LED light to glitter across the gray surface of the Ice Door.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Death Filter

I fell so far and fast that my screams ripped from me. Never seen a thing like this: six walls of cloud, looking like a billion miles, a sunny day inside a tornado the size of earth. I whipped back, and then up, and then plunged down like a roller-coaster drop, pulled by winds with muscle, real muscle, let me tellyabuddy.

Sixteen years or something I fell.

I was sleeping when I hit. Woke up to a smacking wet sound as the web caught me, and let me fly on down a mile or so before slowly stretching me back up, like it was made for catching things like me. When it sprang back, I didn't fly up; I had caught on to a thick strand and was holding on like grim terror, and then I bounced a few times, feet flying up at the sky, gurgling out my little caught-strangled-flying-up-sound. Finally, rest.

I looked around for awhile, and then tried standing up. It took a little focus to get myself walking; sixteen years is a long time. I had to learn to hop from strand to strand, balancing, like I was a kid walking on the top of the monkey bars. I hopped and hopped, picking out a spot on the tornado cloud-wall and trying to keep my bearings from it.

Hours and hours - days? I saw a shape in the distance, lying down. Another faller, sleeping on a wide strand. As I bounded up, I saw that he was awake -- he lifted himself up to a sitting position and greeted me.

"Hell! A newby! I haven't seen someone new in a long time!"

"Hi -- name's Carty." "Ben Werden." He stood up, and we shook hands.

He called it the Death Filter, and said he'd been out on the web for a long, long, time, maybe a hundred years, but I couldn't believe that. because he talked like a techy-type.

He told me that most people just Went On In -- a spot in the wall, a coupla thousand miles away, where people tired of living on the Death Filter finally went to seek release. Ben wasn't ready; but just the other day, a women named Cessina had given up and headed for the Spot. Ben was mournful; he'd been lonely. My coming along was a boon to him, and we ended up talking for days -- months? -- about the Filter, and the Earth, and how much we missed Life. A couple of times I cried -- not used to it. Still scared.

At least I wasn't falling. I looked around - there were groups of people, here and there, some having made a place to be comfortable for a long time, even one fellow who'd managed to convince enough people headed for the Spot to give him an article or two of clothing -- he's made a little cloth island out of it, comfortable and solid, no danger of slipping through, which I had nightmares about, since below us the tornado-wall narrowed to a black nothing, and nobody wanted to fall down there. It looked Bad.

Ben headed for the Spot a few years later. I followed, dragging behind as we got closer -- like a punched hole in the air-wall, a quiet space where the tornado didn't touch. I could feel the pull. And I didn't want to stay in the Death Filter by myself; the thought was hard to take. So -- I went in with Ben.

Which brings us here.